Web 2.0 fosters healthy disrespect

Corporate America could sure use a little help from Aretha Franklin, because big, established companies just aren't getting enough r-e-s-p-e-c-t

I was talking with some CIOs last week about the impact of Web 2.0 on the enterprise. One of them made the intriguing comment that Web 2.0 -- with all its mashups, syndications, consumable services, and instant gratification -- enables customers to more easily "show disrespect for long-established corporate business processes."

Her thesis was this: Web 2.0 technologies put more power and control in the hands of customers than ever. And once customers get a taste of sitting in the driver's seat, they may not look kindly on companies that keep trying to sell the same old thing. They'll want to dictate the terms on which they buy, regardless of how companies prefer to sell.

For example, customers may start to refuse your corporate "wrapper." "Just give me the feed," they may say, or "just sell me some individual cable channels. I don't want to buy your whole stinking bundle."

Further, customers may not permit you to dictate functionality anymore. It's no coincidence Apple was able to use the iPhone to force AT&T to abdicate its usual control over content, UI, apps, and branding. Apple was acting as a proxy for consumers, who don't want AT&T playing gatekeeper. "Just sell me access to your network," the almighty consumer is saying to AT&T in this deal -- through their designated spokesman, Steve Jobs.

Another example: Customers may force you come to them, rather than the other way around. "Just put it on YouTube," the customer is saying to video producers. "I don't want to go to your Web site … just let me do it on Second Life because I've been spending a lot of time there," and so on.

That's b-to-c. But how will this play out for b-to-b customers? Mostly they'll insist on a lower price or better service, as Web 2.0 and its cousin SaaS (software as a service) increase access to real-time price discovery and flexible sourcing.

Across the board, Web 2.0 will accelerate disrespectful customer attitudes and their consequences. How should corporate America and IT organizations respond to this new reality? My recommendation: If you can't fight 'em, join 'em. Throw open the floodgates and deliver your value to the marketplace in as many ways as possible. Let customers "mash up" with you and by doing so, give you the brutal, honest feedback about which aspects of your products and services they really value and which they don't. Embrace their disrespect so that you can morph into something they do respect.

There are costs and risks here, of course -- to your brand, security, operational efficiency, and focus. Perhaps the biggest risk is that by unbundling products and services, corporations may lose control over the "customer experience." But get over it. The customer wants to be in control. If you don't let them, one of your competitors will.

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